New employment contracts are part of a wider rolling restructure at Spark that will see several hundred staff leave over an 18-month period.

About 1900 Spark staff are being given five days to sign new employment contracts agreeing to new ways of working, or leave the company.

But employment law expert Max Whitehead said the staff appeared to have been given too little time to consider their options.

The new contracts have been prompted by Spark deciding last month to bring forward part of a wider structuring programme that is expected to see several hundred staff leave the company between June last year and this December.

Spark staff are being asked to adopt a new way of working popularised by the software industry called Agile.

* Spark’s accelerates job cuts, labour costs set to fall by almost a fifth

* People skills may count the most in a more automated world
* Spark to expand Lightbox, may speed up ‘transformation’ after interim profit falls

It tends to involve people working in more informal groups to implement changes incrementally, rather than work being organised into larger, more hierarchical projects.

Spokesman Andrew Pirie said about 40 per cent of its employees were being invited to sign new contracts.

It is understood the contracts have been going out to staff this week.

But some employees in the affected parts of the business had already decided it was “not for them” and would be leaving Spark, he said.

“As part of the move to Agile, a reasonable number of people in the engine room of the business – product development and marketing, those sorts of roles – are being organised into new teams.

“People are being offered new roles, so they are being given the opportunity to sign new contracts and if they don’t want to sign a new contract then obviously they have the opportunity for redundancy.”

Pirie said staff would be allowed time to seek advice if they needed it.

“Our standard approach for people to agree or not to new offers is five working days, and we had been looking to shorten this to three working days for some roles. But we are now going to keep to the standard five working days for all roles.

“We are moving to fairly tight timeframes but people have been well-informed about the process for months. It is not as if they have been confronted by this without any warning.”

Employment law expert Max Whitehead said Spark staff might need time to seek advice and perhaps provide a written submission that might save their employment.  

“Five days is hard … particularly when they have to go to work every day. I would have thought a fortnight would be the minimum at the very least.”

He also questioned whether it was reasonable to accept people were choosing redundancy if they didn’t sign.  

“If their job hasn’t varied much at all then technically it is not a redundancy situation, so they shouldn’t be facing potential dismissal.

“I would think those individuals could claim their job still exists and they are not prepared to accept redundancy even though their employer may want it.” 

Pirie said not all staff were being offered new contracts. “There may be some people who would like to stay and who will be leaving but I haven’t got the numbers on that.”

Nor would Pirie say how many staff had already or were expected to turn down the offers.

“We have made it quite clear to the market we are on a glide path towards lower staff costs in certain parts of the business and this is one of them.

“The course of the telecommunications business is one that staff numbers are declining.”

Spark has indicated it expects its labour costs to fall by about a fifth over the 18-month period. 

But Pirie said that did not necessary mean staff numbers would also fall by a fifth – which would imply about 1000 jobs losses.

“As part of this process we are looking to internalise some of the capital work that we might have used outside agencies, such as IT contracting firms, for,” he said.

Responding to questions from National MP Melissa Lee on the changes at Spark, Communications Minister Clare Curran said that if hundreds of job were lost it would be “one of the impacts of digital disruption that was impacting on every single sector” of the economy.

Curran said she imagined Spark was trying to “reorient in a way that is more focused on the fast-moving pace of technology”.  

The Government had to provide people with the means to reskill, open up new areas for job creation, and ensure there was “some income security for people while those disruptions take place”, Curran said.

A Wellington business analyst with knowledge of Agile work processes said the shift to the way of working across a large organisation such as Spark was relatively novel in New Zealand.

Agile tended to work best in organisations where a collaborative way of working was well established, he said.

 – Stuff

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